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3 of the best herbs to grow and eat this year

by Timber Press on January 17, 2017

in Food, Gardening

All images by Shawn Linehan from The Culinary Herbal.

Every January, hundreds of blogs spotlight the foods we need to cut out to live happier, healthier lives. Rather than denying ourselves, we want to use the #NewYearNewYou mentality to enjoy more of our favorite foods by mindfully integrating healthful herbs. With valuable insight from The Culinary Herbal and The Herbal Apothecary, we can all cook flavorful, rejuvenating dishes with these easy-to-grow plants.

Rosmarinus officinalis

Rosemary has long symbolized remembrance, and for good reason. After we work with rosemary plants or even brush against them, the invigorating, piney fragrance clings to wool, hair, and skin. The fragrance evokes images of fresh-roasted lamb on skewers of rosemary branches prepared over a campfire on a gravelly beach, with the Mediterranean Sea breaking in the background.

Rosemary scents can be varied, but good culinary rosemary is deeply resinous, scented of pine with nuances of eucalyptus. The strong taste echoes the aroma, with pine, green resin, and sometimes just a hint of bitterness. Rosemary is used in kitchens throughout the Mediterranean region, especially in France, Italy, and Spain. Rosemary goes well with fatty foods—many meats, from chicken to pork to beef, and also cheeses. It is excellent with seafood, and pairs well with many vegetables, especially grilled potatoes. Rosemary branches, left over from stripping the leaves, also make great skewers for grilling. A bit of caution for those who have not cooked with rosemary before: use sparingly at first until you are used to the flavor and its intensity, then gradually try recipes with more rosemary.

Sometimes, a few whole sprigs of rosemary can be added to a dish, perhaps laid in the bottom of a roasting pan for potatoes, chicken, or a roast. The foliage on rosemary is tough and needlelike, so use the whole sprigs for flavoring, and remove them before serving, or finely mince the rosemary leaves before adding them to a recipe.

Many cultivars of rosemary are available, but we prefer those that do not smell of camphor but have the aroma of pine with nuances of eucalyptus and lemon. ‘Shady Acres’ is particularly tasty and low in camphor. ‘Tuscan Blue’ is a handsome specimen with blue flowers, and the camphor content is very low. Flowers on different cultivars range from lavender, blue, to deep purple, and even white and pink, while growth can be upright or sprawling.

Although needles vary in thickness, most upright rosemary bushes look similar except for the blooms. If in doubt, reject any rosemary with an overpowering scent of camphor and steer toward those with a piney-eucalyptus aroma. For example, ‘Arp’ is routinely hardy to zone 7, but it contains 19 percent camphor in its essential oil.

Rosmarinus officinalis.

Cultivation and propagation
Rosemary is difficult to grow from seed because of low seed viability and slow growth, and named cultivars do not remain true to type when seed-grown. Cuttings root readily in water, in a variety of aggregates, or in a combination of sphagnum peat moss and perlite.

Rosemary in pots is especially sensitive to overwatering; the soil must dry slightly between watering, though not to the point where the plant wilts. Overwatered rosemary develops brown leaf tips, an indication that some roots may have begun to rot. Clay pots will allow the soil to dry faster, a condition that lessens root-rot problems during periods of low light in winter. Pot-grown plants may become root-bound quickly (yellowing of lower leaves at the base of the plant is an early warning of this stress) and should be repotted during periods of rapid growth—generally spring and summer. If planted directly into the garden, rosemary may be fertilized once in the season with a granular 5-10-5 or 10-10-10 fertilizer during active growth.

Rosemary may be pruned severely to shape the plants or to keep them from interfering with nearby herbs. Pruning is also a good method of maintaining airflow around and through rosemary plants, an important cultural feature that helps prevent foliar diseases that cause wilt. If you grow rosemary in a cool climate, grow in pots and bring indoors for the winter.

Rosemary is subject to attacks from spider mites, mealy bugs, whiteflies, and thrips, as well as attacks by fungi and stem galls. Organic mulches near the base of the plant often hold water and moisture near low-lying foliage, which provides a home and pathway for water-borne fungi and bacteria. Mulches of pea gravel, ground oyster shells, or sand, which dry rapidly and radiate drying heat into the interior of dense rosemary plants, help to lessen diseases.

Harvesting and preserving
Harvest plants fresh as needed. The flowers are edible too, and can only be used fresh. Rosemary may be easily dried by hanging or by placing the leaves on screens, and storing them in labeled jars out of direct sunlight until next season’s harvest.

Health benefits
Anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, astringent, carminative, diaphoretic, stimulant
Rosemary has been cited endlessly for its positive benefits on the heart and cardiovascular system. It increases the breakdown of sugars and carbohydrates, improving metabolism and reducing the highs and lows of fluctuating blood sugar levels. This is helpful for dysglycemia and the symptoms that accompany it, including irritability, dizziness, and fatigue.

Salvia species

Sage, or more properly common or garden sage (Salvia officinalis), has a unique assertive, warm-spicy herbaceous note of camphor and eucalyptus. This feature is evident in both the bouquet and the taste along with a musky characteristic and just a bare suggestion of lemon as the endnote. Slightly bitter and resinous, sage is particularly associated with sausage and poultry stuffing and is widely used in flavoring condiments, meats, beans and stews, cheeses, grain and pasta dishes, root vegetables, sauces, liqueurs, and bitters. Fresh sage leaves are especially attractive when pressed onto turkey, chicken, and ravioli. The flowers can be used as a savory garnish on grain dishes, pasta, or pizza. Use sage in small quantities at first, since it has a strong flavor.

Salvia officinalis.

Cultivation and propagation
The home gardener will usually be satisfied with one or two large plants of ‘Berggarten’ garden sage.

Pinch the growing tips of any of the culinary salvias regularly throughout the first summer to create many branches. Also cut back the plant about one-third before new growth starts in the second year. Give a side dressing of fertilizer six to eight weeks after planting. When plants are established, fertilize in spring when growth starts and again about the first week in June.

Named cultivars of garden sage are easily propagated from cuttings 1 1/2 to 2 inches long dipped in root hormone. If taken in late fall to early winter, the cuttings will establish ample roots in the greenhouse for transplanting in the garden by spring. Take cuttings from new growth of nonflowering stems, preferably from the base of the plant if available.

Both pineapple sage and fruitscented sage can be grown in thegarden and treated as annuals. We prefer to grow them in large pots so we can enjoy them into winter and the next year.

Harvesting and preserving
Harvest fresh leaves of culinary sage as needed. Only fresh garden sage leaves, not dried, can be sautéed for the popular garnish for pasta. Sages are easily dried by hanging or by placing the leaves on screens, and storing the dry leaves in sealed, labeled jars out of direct sunlight until the next harvest.

The flowers of Salvia officinalis and S. elegans sages are edible, too. They can be used fresh as a garnish or in an herb butter. Use S. officinalis blooms in savory dishes and S. elegans in desserts, syrups, and beverages. The red blooms of pineapple sage and the fuchsia-colored flowers of fruity sage can be dried for tea.

Health benefits
Stimulant, tonic, carminative, diaphoretic, bitter, astringent
In the stomach and intestines, sage works as an astringent to lessen gas, bloating, loose stools, and decreased appetite. Sage is a go-to herb for mouth sores, gum disease, and sore throats. Sage has traditionally been used to calm overly excited states such as nervousness, anxiety, and tremors. It promotes a calming sensation to the brain, which is particularly helpful for overthinkers.

Foeniculum vulgare

Fennel delights the herb gardener because it not only provides tasty leaves and fruits but also provides food for the vividly striped caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly. The aroma is sweet and green and aniselike. The flavor of fennel is similar to anise (Pimpinella anisum) though more full and earthy, sweet and herbaceous. The fruits (commonly called seeds) of fennel are traditional in Italian sweet sausage. Northern Italians often add the seeds to their tomato sauce, and it is used in biscotti and other baked goods. The aromatic blue-green foliage and crisp stems, particularly the bulblike leaf base, are also sliced and used in a variety of dishes, especially seafood preparations, salads, and vegetables. The blooms can be used as a bright yellow garnish on salads or anywhere that the chopped herb is used.

Bronze fennel (Foeniculum vulgare ‘Rubrum’), with its unusual dark foliage, is a great garnish, especially when the stems are grilled with meats and vegetables to add a hint of flavor. Try both the showy leaves and flowers of bronze fennel with summer-ripe fresh tomatoes instead of basil for a tasty change.

The essential oil of fennel seeds is used for flavoring foods, confections, and liqueurs such as anisette and absinthe. It is also used in perfume, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

Children love the attractive feathery foliage of bronze fennel. Cut and sprinkled over salads, the leaves look like purplish-black spiderwebs and they smell of licorice candy.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) fronds with fennel foliage, flowers, and dried fennel seed.

Cultivation and propagation
Plants should be placed 12 to 18 inches apart, and seedlings will need to be thinned to that distance if sown too close together. Soaking fennel seeds in water for five days prior to sowing increases germination. Additional nitrogen application is recommended for maximum yield.

Some gardeners will find that fennel tends to invade the rest of the garden, but in most gardens, it gently re-sows and does not become a nuisance. Its ability to withstand drought, however, means that it can become an invasive species in some regions. You will often see fennel growing along roadsides in warm, dry areas.

Harvesting and preserving
Harvest fennel foliage any time during the season. The many side shoots of fennel complicate the best time to harvest for maximum yield. The highest yields are obtained from two harvests, the first when the umbels reach maturity and another when the umbels are ripened. Fennel foliage and flowers make a delicious herb butter and a zesty vinegar. For seed, dry the crop under shade for four or five days to preserve the green color, then beat it to release the fruits. Store dried seed in labeled jars out of direct sunlight until the next growing season.

Health benefits
Fennel’s sweet and aromatic qualities make it one of the best herbs to use when digestion issues arise. Safe for children and adults, fennel seed’s carminative actions help relieve bloating, gas, and intestinal pain. Fennel is as soothing to the respiratory tract as it is to the stomach. It helps with a dry cough or tickle in the throat that won’t go away and works great as a syrup.


tucker_aArthur O. Tucker is a botanist specializing in the identification and chemistry of plants of flavor, fragrance, and medicine. He is the research professor and director of the Claude E. Phillips Herbarium, and an emeritus professor at Delaware State University.




“Nothing like herbs to punch up those veggies. . . . this guidebook walks you through the propagation, harvesting and preserving of herbs.” —The New York Times Book Review







pursell_jDr. JJ Pursell is a board certified naturopathic physician and licensed acupuncturist and has worked with medicinal herbs for more than 20 years. She owns The Herb Shoppe, which has locations in Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York. JJ and her shop have been featured on television and in Gardenista, White & Warren Inspired, Kale and Coriander, Portland Healing Project, PoppySwap, and Girl Gift Gather.


“Well researched and exceptionally well written. The Herbal Apothecary is a brilliant addition to any herbal library.”—Rosemary Gladstar

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